A Healthy Body Equals a Healthy Mind…That Goes For Kids Too!
It’s no secret to anyone with a pair of eyes that America is in the middle of an obesity epidemic. Our “bigger is better” culture has created a nation of people who are overweight, and out of shape. At some point in the very near future, inactivity and poor diet will pass smoking as the number one cause of preventable death in the United States. You’ve heard the news stories, read the articles, and listened to Oprah and Dr. Oz wax philosophical on the subject. According to the Center for Disease Control, more than one-third of U.S. adults (over 72 million people) were obese in 2005-2006. Three years later, that number has probably increased significantly.
As adults, we have the option to either take responsibility for our choices, and try to change and lead healthier, more active lives, or we can bury our heads in the sand and wait for the cranes to show up and carry our oversized behinds out of the house when we’re too big too fit through the door. OK…a little harsh, I know, but that doesn’t make it any less true. As adults, we DO have the ability to decide how we want to live our lives, and are prepared to deal with the effects of those choices.
Our children, however, don’t have that choice.
What’s scarier than the staggering number of obese adults in our country, is the number of obese children. 14% of children between the ages of 2 and 5 are already overweight. Due to lack of exercise and poor diet, Type 2 Diabetes is expected to afflict 1 in 3 American children born after the year 2000. In African-American and Hispanic communities, this number will rise to 1 in 2.
I’m not a parent, so far be it from me to chastise anyone on how they are raising their children, or try and tell them what they are doing wrong. However, even though I don’t have kids of my own, I was a fat kid, and I am currently a teacher who sees first hand the effects a sedentary lifestyle has on a young mind. It’s hard not to be concerned when you see children coming to school, day after day, with nothing but a sack full of candy, chips and soda to eat as their food for the day. Or, when you see an 11 year old wheezing and complaining after walking up one flight of steps.
We live in a time where kids spend up to 6 hours, or more, a day in front of a TV or computer screen. And if they aren’t getting any exercise at home, they certainly aren’t getting it at school either. 92% of schools in the United States don’t have daily physical education classes, and 33% of elementary schools don’t even have recess on a regular basis.
Personally, I have seen how making small, positive changes in my daily routine could snowball into leading a much healthier and active lifestyle. I felt the motivating effects that increased movement and exercise had on every aspect of my life, and wanted to share that with the students I teach. Two months ago, I was given the opportunity to work with a free program called “Mighty Milers”, which is designed to get kids running and walking, and is sponsored by the New York City Road Runners Foundation. Currently the program services 75,000 students at 182 schools and community centers nationwide. Schools are asked to have students walk or run at least a half -mile, 2-5 times a week, and to pledge to meet a year-long, cumulative goal of anywhere between 26.2 to 104.8 miles (1 to 4 marathons).
The experience I have had running this program at my school has been one of my most rewarding as a teacher. Not only was the opportunity to participate in the club a great motivating tool for my students academically, but it also helped to improve their focus and performance in the classroom as well. My students have started to learn how to set realistic, short-term goals for themselves, and have experienced the pride that goes along with seeing those goals met.
I wasn’t just the facilitator of the program – I made myself an active participant as well. I felt I needed to lead by example, and was there with the kids every day, sweating it out, mile after mile. Sometimes we ran (or at least tried to), but most of the time, we walked, anywhere between 1 and 2.25 miles a day. The first week was hard, but like anything, it became routine, and before I knew it, the students had become as fully engaged in this experience as I was. Physically, they all got better, and it became easier, as these things usually do. What I didn’t foresee, however, was the amazing effect this experience would have on the personal relationships in our classroom.
Socially, I have seen my students bond with each other in an entirely different way than they have all year long. After a couple of sessions on the track, the walls that separated the cliques and groups seemed to disappear. Every day, I would observe how students interacted with each other in a different, and positive way. The “quiet kid” became the “funny kid.” The “nerd” became the “track star.” The “prima donna” learned that she was the fastest runner in the entire grade, leaving the macho, athletic boys in the dust time and time again.
I watched them leave behind the stereotypical behaviors that are associated with most middle-schoolers and become each other’s biggest fans. At the end of the year, when students typically start getting a little crazy with the thought of summer vacation, my students actually got calmer and more manageable. During this short period of time, we managed to put in over 30 miles, and the kids were rewarded with T-shirts and medals for their hard-work. Several parents thanked me, and told me that they plan on continuing the routines with their children over the summer, not only as a way to get in some exercise, but as a bonding experience too.
It’s no secret that a healthy body and a healthy mind go hand in hand. Programs like “Mighty Milers” open up a new world to kids, one that extends beyond the mere act of running. Next time you decide to go out and do something active, and physical…take your kids with you. Son, daughter, niece, nephew, neighbor…do what you can to get them out into the fresh air for a little while. Trust me, they can put down the game controller for 30 minutes and can set the DVR to record that episode of Hannah Montana or Drake and Josh.